I just called to say…

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With my left fist clenched to calm my nerves, I took a deep breath and said the words “I’ve accepted an opportunity at another company. My last day is two weeks from today.” And with that, it was done. I had given my notice after eleven years at the company. I ripped off the band-aid of anticipation of sharing my news and was moving forward into new opportunities. The reaction I got was one of shock and surprise, which quickly turned into a dictation of a long list of things I needed to do before I left. This list I already knew. I had built one similar myself.  In addition to transitioning all my work thoughtfully and turning in my laptop and phone, I had a long list of people I wanted to connect individually with to share my news and thank them for our time working together. And because time was limited before I left, I found I was putting people into two categories: personal phone call or email. 

Even with this list, that next week quickly became overwhelming. The list of actions to take to complete the departure were lengthy, detailed and time consuming. Transition meetings hogged most of my calendar. The rest of the time was packed with the individual calls. Each of these calls I made became overwhelming to hear the response and gratitude from people I had worked with. 

It was around this time that I got a meeting request from a work acquaintance. This is someone I worked with some over the years, but we hadn’t had many interactions. I liked her and enjoyed our meetings, but I didn’t know her well. Admittedly, I saw it and sighed. My inner voice started to ramble “Why is she asking for a meeting? I don’t have time for this. I don’t even have enough time for the people I am trying to individually connect with before I go. She probably just wants to ask how I got a job outside and if I can help her find one…” Pushing back on that admittedly ugly inner voice, I went ahead and accepted the meeting, already preparing a list of excuses to get off the phone early.

We got on the phone and she started with normal small talk. I kept thinking “ok, go ahead and ask me about helping find you an outside job.” She seemed in no hurry to ask for that. Instead, she asked me about the new opportunity, what I would be doing and the changes it would make for me. Then she said, “the reason I called is that I wanted to tell you how much I appreciate working with you.” I was dumbfounded. I literally sat staring at the phone waiting for her to say more. She then listed a series of things she observed about me as a leader over the years. Not big moments where I was in front of the room leading the team or speaking at large events. She mentioned small moments. Where I was one-on-one with members of her team. Or times she noticed me doing something that stood out for her. She had no ask of me, she just wanted to share what she appreciated.

A wave of shock, embarrassment and awe came over me. Shock because I had no idea she had observed these things… or that they were meaningful. Embarrassment because here I was trying to avoid this meeting and she had nothing but good intentions…and I almost missed it. Awe because it was such a classy gesture on her part. She had no reason to reach out to me to say these things. In doing so, she gave me a wonderful gift. She helped me realize how I landed on others. She helped me learn what was memorable about my actions. She told me that she likes to share her perspective with people because we often get so busy, we forget to tell the people the things we value most in them. The things we want to make sure they continue.

This one call stood out for me and reinforced a practice I like to often do when working with leaders. After spending time in person with leaders and watching them interact with their teams, I like to write a “what I observed” email. These emails highlight both big and small moments I observed of their leadership. How I observed them landing on their team. How I see their teams respond to their leadership. Which behaviors and actions I feel have the biggest positive impact on their team. Which strengths they should lean into and embrace, and which ones they should consider refocusing. So often we don’t have a good perspective of how we land on others.  In my role as an external observer, I can do that and try to share that with the leaders I work with.

I recently heard this woman was leaving the company herself. And in the process of departing, she set up individual calls with people she had worked with to tell them what she appreciated most about working with them and what she observed about them. Such a classy gesture and perhaps the best gift one can give. This small investment of time can have exponential returns. This is one of the best professional “pay it forwards” you can provide.

When was the last time you reached out to a leader to share observations of his/her leadership style and the moments that made a difference?